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Chapter One: “The British Calico Printing Industry”

The printing of patterns on textiles using mordants and dyestuffs was a trade practiced in all parts of the British Isles and Europe. By the late seventeenth century, calico printing workshops had been established in present-day Italy; France; the Netherlands; Germany; Switzerland; and Great Britain.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, textile printing of one sort or another could be found just about everywhere in Europe and in numerous places around the world, including the British colonies of North America. It was one of the fastest growing and potentially most lucrative trades in the eighteenth century, and the chemistry and technology involved was at the forefront of developments in science and engineering. Some of the improvements from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are credited to Britain, but important advances were also achieved by chemists and manufacturers in France, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe and were not limited by national borders. By the nineteenth century, British printed textiles were being exported to most parts of the world and in 1840 constituted 70 percent of the country’s total exports, making the industry one of the world’s largest.

Considerable confusion has surrounded the early history of textile printing in Britain and other parts of Europe. Lack of documentation accounts for part of the problem, but the conflation of terms commonly used for the various types of printing throughout Europe by the mid-seventeenth century is also a contributing factor. Words associated with the early history of the trade include painting, staining, stamping, and printing, and these may well have meant different things to different people. There are two aspects to printing on cloth: the technology by which the design is applied and the chemistry by which the coloring agent is attached to the fibers of the cloth. Prior to the eighteenth century, some textile printers are known to have used engraved copper plates and rolling presses to print with inks, first on silk and later on linen. Others used wooden blocks (sometimes called stamps) to apply oil paint (rather than mordants) on the surface of the cloth, a process called stamping. By the late seventeenth century, wooden blocks were also used in Europe to apply mordants to attach dyes, or to print resist pastes to prevent dye uptake on part of the cloth as it steeped in a dyebath, usually of indigo.

Sometimes the context for each term makes the process fairly clear; at other times it would seem that the terms were either not well understood by contemporaries or that their usage was imprecise. In addition, surviving evidence seems to indicate that some textile printers specialized in a single type of printing while others used more than one means of application or type of colorant. To complicate matters even further, fabrics varied. In addition to cotton and linen (the focus of this study), silk and wool, or various combinations thereof, were often used, but the process was still called calico printing.

Excerpt from “Printed Textiles: British and America Cottons and Linens 1700–1850,” by Linda Eaton, with a foreword by Mary Schoeser and new photography by Jim Schenck. Copyright (c) 2014 and reprinted by permission of Winterthur Museum/The Monacelli Press.

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